Hollywood writers escalate war with lawsuit against talent agencies

The Writers Guild of America has escalated its war against talent agents, filing a lawsuit on Wednesday against the four major agencies that seeks to establish the illegality of the practice of packaging fees.

The guild and eight writers are acting as plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in California Superior Court against William Morris Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency, ICM Partners and United Talent Agency.

The guild announced the lawsuit after hopes for a negotiated settlement with the agencies ended without an agreement. Since then, guild members have been urged to fire their agents, arguing that they need “unconflicted representation.”

The somewhat arcane nature of the dispute has made it difficult for the guild to convey the issues that are at stake, which was evident in some of the questions its representatives fielded at the press conference on Wednesday.

The major agencies commonly collect what are known as packaging fees, which are payments for assembling multiple clients — say, a writer, actor and director — into a “package” for a TV studio. The fees collected include a percentage of profits from TV shows. The writers maintain the system leads to abuse, and that agents should receive a flat 10% of their clients’ income, which, as writer Meredith Stiehm said, “aligns agencies financial incentives with their client.”

The complaint argues that packaging fees violate California’s fiduciary duty law and Unfair Competition Law, as well as a provision of the Taft-Hartley Act, which states that an employee’s representative may not receive “money or other things of value” from the employer.

In a statement Karen Stuart, executive director of the Association of Talent Agents, which represents the four agencies, said, “Today’s move confirms that the WGA’s leadership is on a predetermined path to chaos that never included any intention to negotiate.” She added that the guild’s leaders are “unnecessarily forcing their members and our industry into long-term uncertainty,” saying the agencies remain “ready and willing to represent writers.”

Other writers serving as plaintiffs are Patti Carr, Ashley Gable, Barbara Hall, Deric Hughes, Chip Johannessen, Deirdre Mangan and David Simon. The creator of “The Wire,” Simon has been especially outspoken on the issue via social media, writing a lengthy dissertation on the evils of packaging.

It remains unclear to what extent the dispute will disrupt ongoing production. Networks are heading into the stretch when they announce their lineups for the fall, which customarily triggers a round of hiring as shows retain writing staffs.